Cycling Brings Eritrea to The Heart of Richmond

As far as the Eritreans were concerned, they were the winners as they had won the hearts and minds of all, long before they came to Richmond.
The people of Slovakia and Peter Sagan may have won the premier event in the UCI Road World Championships. As far as the Eritreans were concerned, they were the winners as they had won the hearts and minds of all, long before they came to Richmond.

By Sophia Tesfamariam,

It was just over a month ago that the historic Tour de France placed Eritrea and her cyclists on the world stage. A new chapter was written in cycling history when Daniel Teklehaimanot became the first rider down the start ramp at the 2015 Tour. Daniel and his fellow Eritrean compatriot Merhawi Kudus became the first black Africans to race the Tour, as part of MTN-Qhubeka, the first African-registered team ever to start the Tour.

The Tour was made even more exciting when Daniel pedaled past another major milestone when he earned the title of “King of the Mountains” and became the first African to don the polka dot jersey awarded to the race’s leading climber.

So when it became known that the UCI World Championship would take place in Richmond, VA from 20-27 September, excitement swept through the Eritrean communities in the United States. Social media was abuzz and the Richmond 2015 became the talk of the town. The Eritreans were not to be outdone and the historical significance of the event was not lost on them.

This was the first time since independence in 1991 that an Eritrean National Team was participating in an event in the United States. About 1,000 of the world’s top cyclists from about 75 countries competed in the 2015 UCI Road World Championships.

The tight knit, highly organized Eritrean communities in the Eastern region of the United States were determined to show up in great numbers in Richmond to support the Eritrean National Team and they did-very colorfully.

They captured the attention of everyone who came to the races. Cycling Weekly’s Richard Abraham in his 26 September article asks “Why are there so many Eritrea fans at the World Championships?”- The answer is simple, cycling is not just a very popular sport in Eritrea, and Eritrea has managed to maintain a flourishing bicycle culture for over a century.

In Eritrea, the first sighting of a bicycle was in 1898 in Massawa, having been introduced by the Italians. By the 1930s, clubs were being organized, and on April 21st 1937, the first race took place in Asmara.

Even as Eritrea began to undergo large-scale socio-political developments and decades of war (1961-1991), the country’s love of cycling and passion for racing failed to diminish and remains one of the lasting influences of Italian colonial rule.

The country’s first multi-day cycle race was staged in 1946, although locals were not allowed to enter. The Giro D’Eritrea, Tour of Eritrea, was resurrected fiftyfive years later, a symbol of the new-found confidence of a nation which had finally achieved its independence in 1991. As one observer noted:

“… Africa’s oldest cycle race is a far cry from the televised sporting extravaganzas that we’re used to seeing on TV. But a live telecast almost seems unnecessary. The roads are packed with spectators. The event is a huge celebration…”

The UCI World Championships were followed by Eritreans around the world via television and internet. Eritreans living in North America watched it, in person, on the streets of Richmond, VA and got the attention of many. Richard Abraham described what he saw and heard:

“… Eat your heart out Holland; the biggest and loudest set of fans at the 2015 World Championships are definitely here for Eritrea…They’re not very hard to spot. Just look for the dozens of enormous Eritrean flags fluttering in the muggy air in downtown Richmond along the road race course at the World Championships… Look a little more closely and you’ll find there are Eritrean flag-themed scarves, T-shirts, drums, beanies, and even woolly jumpers numbering in their hundreds, all belonging to the vast number of Eritrea fans at this year’s Worlds… The Dutch are well known for their (often boozy) enthusiasm for cycling but this year they are yet to descend on the world championships. It would be a very long, wet drive in a motorhome…Instead it’s Eritrea’s supporters who are rivalling the home team USA in terms of numbers, and who are unparalleled when it comes to noise and energy levels…”

But he was not alone. Dane Cash of Velo News in his article “Richmond worlds: For some, simply a chance to fly the flag” wrote:

“…The opportunity to show the cycling world a flag that some fans may not recognize is one that doesn’t come around every day…”

He spoke to Mekseb Debessay, an elite rider in the Eritrean Team and this is what he said:

“… Our goal is like the other teams — to show our flag in the road… If we show our flag in this competition, it’s very important, it shows what our country Eritrea is…”

For Eritrean Americans it was an opportunity to tell Eritrea’s story and they did, as many were curious.

The colorful attires, the music and the overall atmosphere of fun, and the discipline of the large number of Eritreans, garnered the attention and admiration of many and the Eritrean riders had the best fan base in Richmond.

Dane Cash also said:

“… Debesay’s home country has had a marquee cycling season, with MTN-Qhubeka’s Daniel Teklehaimanot winning the mountains classification at the Critérium du Dauphiné, and then wearing the polka dots for a few days in the Tour de France. Eritrean fans have gone mad for cycling in the wake of the sudden global exposure, and Richmond provides the perfect opportunity to show off the national colors on the international scene…Racing fans might be surprised to discover that it is Debesay starting for Eritrea instead of Teklehaimanot. However, it was Debesay delivering the more consistent results across the year, and that’s what counts for both roster spot allotment and team selection. Eritrea earned several more spots at the under23 level, with promising young rider Merhawi Kudus taking 11th in the road race…”

Daniel Teklehaimanot was mentioned by many during the Richmond races. One artist inspired by his extraordinary performance in the Tour de France told a group of Eritreans that she was inspired by Daniel to create a sculpture that she hopes to finish soon and put on display at her gallery.

Eritrean fans were the talk to the town and in a 27 September 2015 article, Ashley Halsey of the Washington Post wrote:

“…The global scope of cycling was underscored this week by a large and colorful contingent of fans from Eritrea. Draped in large Eritrean flags and waving small ones, they had come to celebrate the lone rider in the men’s final from their country, Mekseb Debesay… At the end of the race, which he was unable to complete, they raised him to their shoulders and paraded at the finish line…”

That was a memorable moment for all and Paul Woody of the Richmond Times Dispatch caught up with the Eritrean fans at the end of the Elite race and described what he saw:

“… As happy as Peter Sagan was to have won the premier event in the UCI Road World Championships and as happy as the people of Slovakia were that Sagan won, neither was as happy as Mekseb Debesay and the people of Eritrea…And those are the people who are in Eritrea and the thousand or so who lined the road course of downtown Richmond…There were maybe as many as 1,000 Eritreans in Richmond to watch the road course race of Worlds… But about 50 yards away, past a large team bus, there was a man standing inside a Honda CRV, his torso protruding through the sun roof as he waved his arms in rhythm with the sea of Eritrean flags that were waving along with him…My 36 years in the newspaper business told me that was where I needed to be… He was no more proud of them than they were of him…Their faces beamed with smiles.

“Thrilled” barely seems an adequate description of how Debesay’s countrymen, women and children felt…Imagine how they would have reacted had he actually finished the race…”

The reaction would have been pretty much the same…winning would earn them more points in the cycling world, but as far as the Eritreans were concerned, they were winners…they had won the hearts and minds of all…long before they came to Richmond.